Congressional Briefing on Migration from Central America: Comments by Kelsey Alford-Jones

The below comments are from the September 16, 2015 congressional briefing titled: “Central America’s Unresolved Crisis”

My Name is Kelsey Alford-Jones, I am the Executive Director of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA, an organization that documents and denounces abuses, educates the international community, advocates for just policies and supports communities and activists who face threats and violence.

We have been working in Guatemala for over three decades and have staff on the ground. I also travel frequently to Guatemala.

Last summer GHRC played an active role in the NGO response to the unprecedented number of unaccompanied child migrants from Central America, providing analysis and policy recommendations. One year later, Guatemalans continue to seek refuge in the US and it is clear that many have legitimate need for international protection but are not receiving the proper support from the US government.

To understand forced migration from Guatemala we have to recognize that it has been inextricably linked to social and political factors rooted in historic poverty, inequality and state-sponsored violence.

After a US-backed in coup in 1954, Guatemala suffered an internal armed conflict (1960-1996), which reached the peak of brutality in the early 1980s. Over 200,000 people were killed and approximately 45,000 forcibly disappeared. State forces committed an estimated 93% of the human rights abuses and employed widespread and indiscriminate torture, sexual violence, extra-judicial execution and committed hundreds of massacres. Over one million people were forcibly displaced, and an estimated 200,000 fled to Mexico, the U.S. and other countries as war refugees.

During this time, the United States funded, trained and supported the Guatemalan military dictatorships that carried out this brutal violence unleashed against Guatemala’s civilian population.

The long-term legacy of this violence – committed with almost total impunity – is complex and includes family and community disintegration, high rates of generalized violence, domestic violence, organized crime, corruption, outmigration, weak state institutions and a myriad of related social problems. These conditions often violate the universal right to life, liberty and security and have become more acute over the past decade.

On a recent visit to Guatemala, Ambassador Stephen Rapp of the office of Global Criminal Justice stated: corruption, violence and criminality grow together, and impunity allows them to flourish; There is a clear link between failing to hold individuals accountable for past crimes, and ongoing corruption, violence and criminality.

We see that in Guatemala, today. Guatemala has one of the highest homicide rates in the western hemisphere. Violence and insecurity are generalized, in cities and in rural areas. Extortion, threats, and extrajudicial killings have become commonplace. Gangs and organized criminal networks control huge areas of Guatemala’s territory. In my fact-finding missions to Guatemala and my support for Guatemalans seeking asylum and other forms of protection in the US, it is clear that the threat of violence permeates all regions and all sectors of society. And that impunity is the norm, not the exception.

The Guatemalan government, for its part, has been unable to protect its citizens or hold perpetrators of violence accountable.

The justice and security sectors in Guatemala are weak, overwhelmed, and suffer from widespread corruption. Judges frequently report threats and intimidation.

The Guatemalan police – which increasingly relies on support from the military – has proved unable, and in some cases unwilling, to provide adequate protection for the Guatemalan citizenry.

Moreover, there are credible allegations of collaboration between organized criminal groups and members of the Guatemalan military and police, as well as police and military involvement in kidnapping, drug trafficking, trafficking in persons, and extortion; and lethal violence against women, exacerbating impunity and denying victims the right to security and justice. Such abuses are rarely investigated or prosecuted.

The breadth and depth of corruption in Guatemalan institutions has been uncovered over the last few months, as unprecedented investigations by the CICIG and the Public Prosecutor’s Office have led to indictments of numerous high-level officials, including the former President and Vice-President, who await trial on charges of fraud and accepting bribes.

Active investigations continue into criminal activity by two former ministers of Energy and Mines, the Interior Minister, former prison directors, the Defense Minister, judges and Supreme Court Justices, the directors of Guatemala’s customs agency, healthcare system, National Bank – and the list goes on.

Analyzing corruption in Guatemala, Northwestern law professor Julliette Sorenson, an expert on the subject, stated: Corruption at this level interferes … with the most basic tenets of participatory democracy and human rights.

Indeed, when trying to understand why individuals make the difficult decision to uproot themselves from their families and communities to seek refuge elsewhere – we must look not only at the most evident cases of violence committed with brutality and impunity, but also the complex interaction between government corruption, parallel power structures, and structural violence that intertwine to actively threaten people’s right to life.

Certain groups are particularly vulnerable.

Much of the migration to the US is of indigenous people from impoverished rural areas. Added to the multitude of problems linked to violence, their communities often have a complete absence of state services, suffer high rates of malnutrition, (reaching 70%.). Indigenous peoples face high rates of impunity for crimes committed against them, because of language and cultural barriers – as well as deeply entrenched racism that permeates state institutions, including the police and judiciary, further impeding access to effective protection.

Women and girls suffer high rates of violence including domestic violence and rape. Moreover, Guatemalan women suffer one of the highest rates of femicide in the world. DOS report: In most killings, sexual assault, torture, and mutilation were evident. The conviction rate? 1-2%. A significant portion of femicide victims had previously reported threats before they were killed, but the authorities failed to intervene on their behalf.

Widespread discrimination and violence is perpetrated against the LGBT community, that include extrajudicial killings and other hate crimes. A recent study found that trans women in Guatemala – excluded and shunned from society – have an average life expectancy of 25 years.

Children are perhaps the most vulnerable of all. Children suffer widespread abuse, sexual exploitation, and forced marriage. Guatemala now has the second highest rate of child murder in the world, second only to El Salvador.

It is estimated that family members are responsible for 9 out of 10 cases of child abuse. Sexual abuse against young girls has resulted in high pregnancy rates. According to one study from 2013, more than 60,000 girls between 10-19 gave birth; 89% of the abusers were family members, and 30% were the girls’ own fathers.

Where gangs are present, children and youth are specifically targeted for forced recruitment and threatened with severe retaliation if they refuse to join gangs and perform criminal activities. In June, Ángel Escalante, age 12, was kidnapped by gang members. They ordered him to kill a bus driver and when he refused, he was given a choice – be cut into pieces or be thrown off a bridge. Angel chose the bridge, and fell over 440 ft. He died later in the hospital.

The people who work to address these issues and who play an active role in society in demanding better living conditions, who demand respect for basic rights and protection from violence, and investigate and denounce impunity and corruption – are constantly under threat of attack. In 2013, at least 18 human rights defenders were assassinated for their work and in 2014, there were over 800 complaints filed by defenders – almost triple the number of complaints filed in 2012. Just a few days ago, an indigenous leader and spiritual guide was killed in the highland town of Cotzal. He had been a witness in the genocide trial against former dictator Rios Montt.

Returned migrants – many of whom have legitimate protection claims – face these same conditions…and worse. Last fiscal year, about 50,000 Guatemalans were deported from the US, and there are no government services to support their reintegration, job training or do risk assessments for those who fled violence. Unaccompanied children are not monitored after being released to a family member. Minors who remain in state custody live in overcrowded shelters with extremely poor living conditions, undertrained staff, and a lack of security.

To date, US attempts to address Guatemala’s challenges that exist in Guatemala have failed to solidify meaningful and sustained changes in levels of poverty and violence. We continue to confront the legacy of our support for widespread violence against civilians during Guatemala’s war; more recently, the regional free trade agreement, CAFTA, has not achieved its stated goal of developing “prosperity and stability” in the region – much the opposite. Our regional security initiative, CARSI – which aims to create “safe streets,” reduce illegal trafficking and develop accountable governments – has not produced meaningful results in those areas.

And now, despite the humanitarian crisis in the region, the US response – such as the Alliance for Prosperity — has tried to impede migration without including any guarantees of protection, and has not recognized the complexity of the situation.

As Guatemala goes through an unprecedented political transition, we have an important opportunity to reevaluate our policies toward Guatemala and the region.

In the short term, the US should fully comply with international obligations and provide comprehensive screening for possible international protection needs.

The U.S. should halt deportations of vulnerable populations until a system is in place in their home countries to provide the necessary services, and should consider administrative protection such as TPS.

Overall, our policies and funding to Guatemala should be focused on addressing structural violence, strengthening Guatemala’s institutions, and supporting vulnerable populations. Any foreign assistance to the security and development sectors should include strong conditionality – based on human rights and other standards – to incentivize reform and accountability. And most importantly, we need to listen carefully to the demands and needs of the Guatemalan citizens. This, I think, will be the key to finding more effective solutions.

Thank you.

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